Ideological design

One might have thought that the argument by design would have ceased to
be a topic of serious religious debate and reflection after its limits
were conclusively demonstrated by Hume’s devastating critique in the
18th Century. But you would have been wrong. In a recent editorial
appearing in the New York Times, Michael J. Behe defends the concept of
“Intelligent Design,” the 21st Century incarnation of this tired
staple of 17th century natural theology. It would be pointless to
rehearse the arguments Hume uses to demonstrate the inconclusiveness of
Design as an argument for the existence of God. I would refer the
reader to his *Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion*. Behe, in fact,
claims that intelligent design “says nothing about the religious idea of
a creator,” a caveat that, in spite of its disingenuousness (can anyone
seriously doubt that what is at stake here is theistic belief?), we can
perhaps take as a tacit acknowledgment of Hume’s conclusions. Rather,
Behe presents Intelligent Design as a credible scientific explanation
for the complexity of biological systems. This claim is dubious from
two perspectives.

First, it rests on a misconception of what constitutes a
scientific explanation. A vague sense of wonder at the marvelous order
and complexity of life, however attractive such a notion may be, hardly
constitutes a theoretical model allowing scientists to predict events in
the natural world. To be sure, I have no doubt that such an
‘explanation” provides many human beings with a reassuring sense of
the meaningfulness of the world and of human existence within it. But
that’s hardly a scientific explanation, whose scientific worth is tied
to its predictive capacity.

More dubious is Behe’s presumption that intelligent design is
not a religiously based concept. It is based, he says, “on physical
evidence and a straightforward application of logic.” First of all, if
intelligent design truly had nothing to do with metaphysical belief, one
would expect intelligent design to have attained general acceptance
among members in the scientific community. Science has a way of sorting
out competing empirically based theories, and that’s why the natural
sciences have been generally free of the long-standing scholastic
disputes and factionalism that have characterized realms of human
endeavor like philosophy, politics, and of course, religion.
Intelligent design concerns a metaphysical principle that manifests
itself in natural phenomena. It’s not a theoretical model that allows
scientists to organize data or predict future events. Unlike Darwin’s
theory of natural selection, which, as fundamentalist Christians like to
remind us, is “only” a theory, “intelligent design” does not constitute
a scientific theory.

Rather, intelligent design is a quasi-religious ideology that
masquerades as a scientific theory. In this respect it is similar to
the idea of evolution as the latter was applied to non-scientific uses
in Victorian anthropology and in some subtle and not-so-subtle
libertarian and racist ideologies. Rhetorically what is going on is an
attempt to transfer the considerable prestige that science enjoys in the
modern world onto what is in fact a metaphysical concept. It is a
strategy of valorization that exploits the allure of “science.” In this
respect it is not unlike political pundits rattling off statistics or
T.V. doctors using impressive sounding, pseudo-scientific jargon to sell
toothpaste. In a sense it is not surprising that Behe, who is himself a
scientist, would appeal to the prestige of scientific discourse in order
to validate what is in reality a religious cum ideological belief. His
argument serves to remind one that even fine scientists, to say nothing
of mediocre ones, are often bad philosophers when they take off the lab


the editors would like to welcome another guest contributor, hnicholson.